Wildfires burn in the central interior of British Columbia in 2017. Photo/Raymond Ford

Some B.C. residents still struggling after 2017 wildfires

Burned out homes and ashes still remain on some main roads in the central interior of British Columbia, reminding residents of when wildfires ripped through their communities in 2017.

Local community leaders say several houses that burned down have not been rebuilt. And some of the homes that have been repaired are surrounded by blackened forest.

While many residents are working to get back to normal life, they know things will never be the same again.

“We’ve lost our sense of home and safety. Our reality is different,” said Joan Sorley, a director on the board of Cariboo Regional District, who represents five different communities in the area.

A recent study, conducted by the federal government and the University of Victoria, concluded that human-induced climate change is largely to blame for the severity of the wildfires that ravaged the province that year.

The fires burned a record setting 1.2-million hectare area. Researchers found that the area was seven to 11 times larger than it would have been without human influences on climate.

The fires displaced 65,000 people and exposed millions to smoke-filled air.

In the Cariboo Regional District, Sorley said many people panicked when the fires first started.

Some rural residents who were evacuated did not have cell phones and had no way of getting information about whether it was safe to return, she said. Some even camped out in parking lots for weeks.

Sorley left almost as soon as nine fires broke out around her home in Big Lake, B.C.

She didn’t wait for an evacuation order and stayed with family in Prince George for three weeks.

“It’s changed me,” Sorley said of the wildfires. “My home doesn’t feel the same any more. It kind of lost its safety it always had.”

Raymond Ford, a resident of 100 Mile House, said he didn’t return to his home for 72 days. During that time, he said he suffered a nervous breakdown.

“When the wildfires hit, all mayhem hit,” he said.

Planes fly by wildfires in the central interior of British Columbia in 2017. Photo/Raymond Ford

Varying levels of government have been working to educate residents how to “fire-smart” their properties in order to decrease the chances of their homes igniting if wildfires return. This can include removing flammable vegetation near houses, and replacing certain types of sidings and finishes that are particularly combustible.

Ford said he has taken a number of steps to protect his property from wildfires.

Walt Cobb, the mayor of Williams Lake, B.C., said his municipality has been working with different levels of government to fire-smart the community. The small city of 12,000 abuts the rural area Sorley represents.

“We’re doing everything we can to not only be ready if it happens again, but trying to do what we can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.

The city’s residents were evacuated July 15, 2017 and were barred from returning for two weeks.

As others ran from the flames, Cobb stayed put in Williams Lake. He camped out at the fire hall with his mobile home, and vowed to stay until the last firefighter left.

The flames spared the buildings within the city limits of Williams Lake, but the events still left emotional scars on many residents, Cobb said.

Last year, Cobb said some residents would pack up their cars and get ready to leave at any sign of smoke.

He said some children were scared to go back to school as they feared they would be separated from their parents again.

“That we’ll be dealing with for years,” he said.  

But while many people are still on edge, Sorley said a comforting aspect of the whole ordeal was that it caused many in the affected communities to come together to help each other.

There were also groups from other places that arrived to help in any way they could. Volunteers with the Mennonite Disaster Services camped out in the area to help rebuild homes for free.

Residents of Fort McMurray, who suffered through that city’s wildfires in 2016, loaded up trucks with supplies for evacuees and drove them down.

“The flip side is communities are coming together,” she said.